05 July, 2017

One Month at the Ministry

Paul Park is a Korean American, a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA). He teaches Mattayom 1 through 6 at Warinchamrap School in Ubon Ratchathani province and tutors throughout the week after school. He was born in Irving Texas and graduated from the Saint John’s University in Asian Studies with a focus on Political Science. In his free time, Paul enjoys going to the gym, playing basketball, and meeting with new people. After the grant, Paul hopes to enter into a graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin. 

When I first was told that being an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) required me to find an internship for the month of March, I was very worried and troubled. I didn’t know what field of work I wanted to pursue and had no clue where I wanted to live in Thailand for that month. However, my confusion quickly turned to clarity when my predecessor told me about her internship at the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Bangkok. I was under the impression that I would have quite a lot of free time to study for the GRE or just mosey around and browse YouTube or watch Netflix. My expectations were proven wrong on the first week of my internship and from then on, working at MOE proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever been a part of. 

Great meal with my P's

The first week of my internship, I expected to settle down on my desk, possibly work on some essays I needed to get done and most likely browse Netflix to catch up on my shows. But within the first couple of days, I was sent on a sort of excursion to escort teachers from Singapore around Bangkok and outside Bangkok to get them acclimated to the Thai lifestyle. Their mission was to understand the Thai education system as well as share their own teaching experiences with Thai schools inside and outside of Bangkok. I was on this excursion with them for a week. From visiting one of the most prestigious high schools in Bangkok, to visiting a school with far less funding outside of Bangkok. It was quite the journey as I ended up building a very close relationship with them. There were around 10 teachers who ranged from ages 28 to 57. They were all so kind to me and although they, for some reason, assumed I was 30 years old at first, I quickly forgave them and blamed their misguided guess by the growing facial hair that I let grow for around two days; that is what I decided to tell myself. 

At first I was very shy to talk and bond with these teachers from Singapore because they were older than me and much more experienced in teaching. However, traveling around Bangkok with these educators who were completely different from me in terms of professional experience, age, and hobbies, forced me to get out of my comfort zone and bond with them. During one of my excursions, one teacher in particular was very bored of the trip and took out a Nintendo 3DS. The moment I saw the 3DS, I pounced on the opportunity to make small talk with him. When I asked what game he was playing, he replied “Pokémon X”. I thought to myself, ‘this man is more experienced than me, has a Master’s degree, and we are thirteen years apart in terms of our age but we both love Pokémon’. I felt quite satisfied to see such a smart and sophisticated 35 years old educator from Singapore, playing Pokémon. Needless to say, we easily connected. 

In total, the teachers from Singapore and I visited two schools. The school that I visited in Bangkok, one of the most prestigious schools in Bangkok, has a full soccer field with beautiful grass and even a museum that is preserved by the government located on the school grounds. The school outside of Bangkok has a dirt soccer field with no air conditioning in their main hall with a total student population below 150. The differences are night and day between these two schools. However, one thing that remained a standard among all the schools is the sense of hospitality and kindness given to strangers. They put on different shows acted out by the students and even gave us tours around their classrooms. The school with little funding made all of the students perform a traditional Thai dance for the Singapore teachers as well as a song. The school made me and the teachers with whom I was accompanied, feel right at home.

After the Singapore teachers left Thailand, I expected my job to become duller and to fulfill my previous expectations, but that did not happen, either. Once I came back from the seminar the following week I attended several diplomatic meetings which involved countries such as Japan, Mexico, Australia, and Turkey. During these meetings I was able to observe diplomacy take place. Witnessing different ambassadors coming from all around the world come and speak to Thailand’s Minister of Education, gave me more of an appreciation for the people who worked so hard to set up these meetings.

Meeting with the representative from Japan!

Each person who was a part of the Ministry of Education was in charge of a different task to get these meetings going and to make sure they were successful. From taking notes, getting the itinerary set, creating talking points between the ambassadors and the Minister, to creating a hospitable environment for each person. Everything was carefully planned and executed to perfection. Each person was playing a pivotal role in creating a friendly and hospitable environment, including myself. I was in charge of taking notes of each of the meetings because each diplomat from every country communicated through English. While it was fun to witness the meetings, keeping track of what everyone says with a pen and paper was quite difficult—kudos to those people that do that on a daily basis.

Although I was there as an American intern and my job was to take notes in English, the staff at the Ministry of Education sometimes would mistake me for a Thai intern. This is somewhat understandable considering that I am Korean-American. At one point they would tell me to do something in Thai and in turn, I would smile at them and stare until they realized they were talking to someone who probably can’t speak Thai. This happened on a daily basis and at first, I was slightly frustrated. But I’ve learned that this confusion about my nationality is to be expected; the people who are questioning my nationality or are sometimes confused, don’t have malicious intentions towards me, they are all genuinely curious about me as a person. So being part of the Ministry of Education, in terms of people questioning my nationality, I learned to respond in a respectful and honest way. At the end of the day, these people who always question my cultural background are only doing so because they are curious.

However, better than the excursions and the ambassador meetings, one of the most memorable events I was a part of during my time at the Ministry of Education was Thailand’s national English speaking competition. This event stood out to me more than the tour with the Singapore teachers or the Ambassador meetings because I was able to see the top students from all around Thailand compete with each other. One of the competitors was from Roi Et. I teach in Issan and Roi Et is a part of Issan, so I was slightly biased on who I wanted to win the competition. The competition consisted of several speaking rounds as well as a final round which included a random prompt from the moderators for the competitors to speak about. During this event, I was amazed at how proficient these students were but at the same time, I could expect nothing less from Thailand’s finest English speaking students. At the event, every judge was greeted with kindness, the crowd was engaged, and ultimately the competitors were encouraged at every step of the competition. 

The competitors of the speech competition

The competition was fierce and it truly showed how much work these students put into their speeches as well as their preparation to speak in front of a crowd. Even when a student lost, they encouraged the other competitors to keep on going and to do their best. One particular student immediately caught my attention. While she was preparing, I remembered thinking, “wow this is like a Mattayom three student and she looks so shy”. I was proven wrong seconds within her speech. She was loud, strong, and confident in her speaking abilities and to be honest, I caught myself leaning in while she was speaking. She just drew the attention of every person in the crowd because of her confidence. Once the winner was announced, each competitor was gifted a prize. At the end, all of the competitors stood together with each other on stage and celebrated.

Almost all aspects of my internship were full of surprises and people whom I feel blessed to have met. Every person at the Ministry of Education made my experience amazing. Thanks to my co-workers at the Ministry, I was able to make lasting connections with experienced teachers from Singapore who I never would have thought had similarities with me. Even being a part of the note-taking process during ambassador meetings were fun. While I admit, it’s hard to keep up with what people say at times, it really gave me an appreciation for people who take notes on a daily basis. It isn’t an easy job and I will never take that for granted. The English completion gave me an inside look at how hard student’s in Thailand work to achieve their goals. Each student in that competition was highly motivated to learn and it showed in their performance.

With my Amazing co-workers!

As a teacher in Thailand, my one month internship gave me more motivation to do right by my students. It was truly a blessing to work at the Ministry of Education, a blessing I will never take for granted, and a blessing I will never forget.

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